How do we ‘lead’ disruption?


By Patrick Condren, Ph.D., Chief Information Officer

“You cannot solve a problem by using the same thinking that created it”, Albert Einstein. If you want to get disruptive, you will have to think differently.


Is disruption good?  What is disruptive thinking? Essentially it is the kind of ideas and thinking that disrupt the status quo. This can be a good thing in business/industry, because that kind of thinking generates new ideas. Google, Facebook, Amazon, eBay, LinkedIn, Uber, AirBnB are all examples of disruptive thinking, but so are products like the iPhone, iPad, the Mac (and PC in its day), even the old fashioned fax machine was disruptive in its day. Disruption in this context means advancing, success, creating new markets and new profits. We need to encourage it. The biggest obstacle to ‘positive disruption’ is our discomfort (as people) with change.


One of the most difficult things to lead is disruptive thinking in a traditional environment. Having to balance the potential of leaps in innovation, with organisational resistance and delivery. We live in a time of rapid change and boundless opportunities. To take best advantage (and perhaps even survive) most traditional or established businesses need to adopt a different strategy for innovation and product development. ‘Agile’ is a great step in the right direction, but even agile needs a turbo boost, a spark to ignite the best innovations. In a world where “Uber the world’s largest Taxi company owns no vehicles, AirBnB the largest accommodation company owns no real estate, where Facebook as the world’s most popular media company owns no content and Alibaba the world’s most valuable retailer owns no merchandise” it is clear that the old models for business are being torn down and new models for success will emerge.


So how do we ‘lead’ disruption? For me I would suggest the following, based on my experience and observation:

  • Identify the people who have an interest and propensity for disruption, and put them together, physically and organisationally.
  • The challenge here is that many of these folks will have personalities that are not necessarily HR friendly. They are after all ‘disruptive’ and the HR radar triggers the warning bells. However in this case you need that personality type, the usual HR recruiting filters need to be addressed.
  • Your organisational structures may need a different reality. Normally we pay based on experience and generally on seniority as defined by the size (or importance) of the organisation being managed. Typically the job type and level are significant pay factors. In this new disruptive world you may have a raw rookie as your most disruptive (and creative) team member with no direct reports and no desire to manage anyone. So in the old model this person is at the bottom of the pay-scale. In the new world, this model will not work, the person will be headhunted out your door. You need a better reward system than the old models. Again an important discussion with HR, but also with the executive team, they must understand the need.
  • You will need a non-traditional space for your disruptive team. So long as it is ‘health and safety’ compliant you should seriously consider letting the team have a fairly free hand with it. Why should you care if someone is working from a bean bag, listening to Frank Sinatra, wearing shorts and tee shirt, with an Aussie cork hat – so long as the great ideas are flowing… I’m not saying to abandon all rules, but perhaps you need to revisit what makes sense in the new world, and to the people that you need to attract and retain.  Who are you trying to impress?  Innovators that you want to attract, or the occasional customer who gets a tour?  If the customer, then the perhaps the innovation that is flowing is more impressive than suits and ties.
  • Give them the tools needed for innovation and disruption. If they want a Mac, give them a Mac. If they want a 3D projector, do it. So often people get hung up on ‘corporate standards’, while asking people not to be ‘standard’! It is insane to attempt innovation, but screwed it down in to such a tight box that Innovation is just not possible. I have seen this so often. In one case it took 9 months to install a plotter, for an innovation team, due to corporate resistance and red tape – soul destroying for all involved.
  • If you are going to do ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ get the full executive buy in and support, you will need it!
  • While you may create the environment for your ‘disruptives’ to flourish, some other team members may feel threatened or aggrieved by the perception of favoritism. This mitigation may take several facets, consider relaxing some of the rules for all team members, maybe a ‘jeans Friday’ or ‘office smart’ only required if meeting clients etc. You will need to find the balance. You may want to consider your general BYOD (bring your own device) policy, create ‘Spark’ or socialisation areas, make working more of a pleasure and fun… Studies have shown that ‘engaged’ team members generate better bottom line results (see Gallup and AonHewitt data). Often this engagement is the most cost effective way to generate bottom line results, but the things required for it are so often the first thing cut from a budget.
  • You will need to lead and manage this team differently from others, you may need a few new skills, but mostly you will need to trust more and control less. The best people may well be ‘challenging’ and may need ‘protecting’ from the usual corporate processes (eg. Tidy desks. So long as it is not sensitive data and is in a ‘disruptive or innovation lab’; why are these kinds of resrictions more important that the function of the team? ). Bonus, progress reports, mid-year and annual reviews will all need to be tackled differently.
  • The productisation of ideas and POC’s is always a challenge. You will likely need a different way to understand the value of your creations than the old models. For example you may not have an ‘App’ that you can sell, but what would most companies have done with the Google search engine 15 years ago? Or Facebook when it was nascent? They would have tried to put a fee on its use, and killed the idea. You may well have a similar opportunity if you are brave enough to pursue the ‘next big thing’.

End note: By way of example I’d like to give you a brief and small personal example. In a company that I worked for recently, we had 2 weeks’ notice of a site visit of our new CEO. I was leading the technology COE. In order to demonstrate that we could ‘think disruptively’ I pulled together a team of people with ‘disruptive’ capabilities and asked them to work on, and deliver an Idea that ‘I’ had. The idea was to have an iPad floor map, which the CEO could use as he walked around, and as he came to different sections he could tap on that section. Up would pop a description of that team and what they did. A stretch goal was to have a video content available to play in addition describing the team etc. A good idea, but…


The team took that Idea and blew it up. They suggested an iPad Air (just released) that had NF (near Field) and the app that they developed was an interactive app that sensed where it was on the floor using NF and iBeacons, it then automatically presented the data and offered the video interactively on the iPad. So as the new CEO walked from team to team he also had the names, faces and team priorities at his fingertips. Also available on that App was included our team videos, video on our inspirations and video of thought leaders on ‘thinking differently’. It was a brilliant was to make a first impression and demonstrate capability.


The CEO was blown away by the app and we had great dialogue about thinking differently (disruptively), objective achieved.


The issues that I had to lead though were, my own ego as their idea was an improvement on mine, the fear of such an ambitious idea not being delivered on time, assurance of support to the team and visibly remove all obstacles, placate the other stakeholders that the App would be delivered (when no one really believed that it could be in the time frame), the ‘scope creep’ of the content moving from just technology to include all functions on the site, the purchase of the iPad was outside of corporate standard equipment (we had to buy it from a retail store), I had to pull the team together and give them a space to work together, I had to find the budget, later I had to deal with the bureaucratic knuckle wrapping for ‘not following process’… though with the global CIO and CEO blown away by the result, the knuckle wrappers were very muted.


“The problem for most of us, is not that we aim to high and fail, it is that we aim to low and succeed”, Michelangelo.